It’s a sunny day and the windows are rolled down. My father has just picked me up from elementary school and we’re headed to the grocery store to grab ingredients for dinner and, if I’m lucky, I might get to snag a cookie for an after-school treat. As we make our way to the store, we do what we always do in the car: sing. He transforms the steering wheel to a snare drum, center console and his door into toms, the dash into cymbals, and provides a steady percussive beat as we begin to sing a cappella to one of “our songs.” He starts out making up words about this and that, then looks at me to cue my entrance. Without missing a beat, I jump in making up on-the-spot rhymes and adding a harmonious counterpoint to his melodic lines.
This was our usual routine. If dad and I were in the car, we’d sing. Of course the singing immediately stopped once we reached our destination, but sometimes if there was nobody around in the grocery store aisle we’d start up with the refrain one more time. Occasionally, we’d come home with hilarious new lyrics and try to recall them for mom. Many of dad’s melodies, I later learned, were motifs from TV shows he watched growing up, musicals, or radio jingles. (You should have seen my face when we were at the Fox Theater watching Les Miserables and I thought Javier stole my dad’s song! I thought dad made up that melody!) Neither of my parents would label themselves as professional musicians, but their love of music saturated our household (my mom knows every word of just about every Broadway show from Oklahoma to Hamilton), and influenced my life in a way far greater than can be described in one blog post.
Fast-forward 15 years. After majoring in vocal performance in college and not feeling 100% sure that was what I wanted to do with my life, a friend recommended I check out the profession of music therapy, which sounded like a fake profession to me at the time. I observed a class at UMKC and immediately knew that day that this is what I wanted to do with my life. Board-certified music therapists help others reach non-music goals (speech, cognition, fine motor, social, academic, etc.) through the use of individualized research-based music interventions.
Songwriting is a huge part of being a music therapist. I’ve written songs to help students with autism learn conversation skills. I’ve written songs to help rehabilitation patients in a nursing home gain a more normal gait pattern when working with their physical therapist. I’ve written songs to help early childhood students learn how to read. I’ve written songs for pediatric oncology patients to make the hospital setting feel more normal. I’ve written songs for parents in the NICU to bond with their newborn babies. I’ve written songs for patients with Alzheimer’s to help them remember their kids names. I’ve written songs for patients on hospice in their final moments of life. My songs are not GRAMMY winners, and they’re not intended to be. They’re rooted in research, individualized, and designed to help each person get from point A to point B. In music therapy, we call this the iso-principle: meeting our clients where they are, and taking them where they need to be.
Outside of my career, I have more recently begun writing songs for the church. Similar to songwriting for music therapy, I recognize that others who hear or sing my original songs are at point A, and that my job as a songwriter is to help them get to point B. The thing that excites me as a creative person is the infinite space between those two points. In music therapy, that space is where science and art intersect and where research and creativity collide. In songwriting for worship, that space is where I allow room for God to influence my work and where inspiration is brought forth from the community, conversations with friends, or what’s on my heart.
Growing up, I hadn’t planned to be a songwriter and certainly hadn’t imagined delving into a profession like music therapy. Over the years, I’ve come to believe this: I was born to help others be their best selves, and my unique way of doing that is through music. As I reflect on what led me to my profession, which happens to also be my passion, I think of those car rides with dad. I don’t think in my dad’s wildest dreams did he understand that he was fine-tuning skills that I would use every single day. Car ride after car ride, lyric upon silly lyric, my dad was developing my musical and lyrical abilities that ultimately would one day help others.
God knew I would be a music therapist. God knew I would write songs. God knew that my songs, that only could come from me, would one day help kids with autism, patients with Alzheimer’s, clients in recovery, lonely people find hope, and hopeless people find joy. You never know the impact you’re having on other people through the ordinary, simple things you do every day, like singing in the car with your daughter after school.
Whitney Ostercamp is a board-certified music therapist in St. Louis. She works in the public school system helping students with special needs through research-based music therapy interventions. Ostercamp is a volunteer worship leader at the Clayton Site of The Gathering, and frequently writes original music with Made New Creative, including the title track of the album “We Are Your Love.” In addition to music therapy and worship leading, Ostercamp is a freelance writer and food photographer at thenewlywedchefs.com.